My birthday came and went last week in a curl of candle smoke and the fizz of local Vermont beers.
The big “three zero.” It’s a major milestone in life. But what it’s supposed to mean is still a mystery to me.
Apparently, 30 is the new 20 and 40 is the new 30. For millennials, this means that we’re just entering the adulthood that the previous generations arrived at in their 20s.
Which makes sense. After all, the tough economic climate we experienced in our 20s has delayed our development compared to previous generations.
When I graduated in 2008, the job market was atrocious. Many of my peers graduated college only to find work in the service industry or be underemployed in a professional field.
This, coupled with high debt from student loans, led to a delay in all the signs of economic adulthood – savings, 401(k)s, buying houses, getting married, and starting families.
The lack of savings and abundant debt weighs heavily on the minds of my peers, for sure. But the other hallmarks of adulthood, not so much.
“What’s the rush?” is a common response uttered by 20- and 30-somethings in one form or another.
We’re in It for the Long Haul
Some might see the extra years my generation has spent renting and paying off debt as wasted money. But perception is key.
Millennials are set to live the longest compared to any other generation. Many researchers are predicting an average lifespan of around 90 years. As such, millennials won’t even be considered old until they reach half a century.
“[Increased] longevity has contributed to unprecedented economic growth and opportunities for personal fulfillment that previous generations could only dream of,” says Paul H. Irving, Chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging.
“Innovations in genomics, personalized medicine, and digital health will mean more time to work, learn, contribute, and recreate.”
As a result, millennials will likely be working for longer and thus have more years than previous generations to build up wealth. Even if I buy a house at 40, that’s still 60-plus years to pay off the mortgage or allow its value to rise before selling it.
“If the progress of millennials, hit hard by the Great Recession, is any indication of adaptability, there’s reason for optimism,” says Irving.
Only Death Is Certain
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Clearly, millennials are forging a new path when it comes to economic adulthood. But as an older member of this generation, being among the first to do things differently has been difficult.
In the weeks leading up to my birthday, I had a bout of anxiety about my decision to leave my full-time job to come here and work in exchange for a stipend, room, and board. I was struck with intense worry about how this atypical move could affect my economic future.
I don’t have any debt (now), and the combination of regular freelance work and very low living expenses has allowed me to continue to save a hearty amount every month in my emergency fund/long-term savings.
Still, I worry.
The fact that I’m living an unconventional lifestyle makes things feel unstable because I don’t see this lifestyle mirrored back at me in mainstream culture. After living a fairly conventional – and some would say ideal – life, suddenly I’m lacking all those subtle reinforcements confirming that I’m living as I should be.
It feels as if my income and security are extremely fragile. At any moment, the rug could get pulled out from underneath me, and I could fall into a spiral leading to poverty – stuck, desperate, and out of control.
Other than money, I also worry that I’m missing out on some important, young, urban experience by being away from the city and the society I’m accustomed to. It’s FOMO (fear of missing out) at its most extreme.
Of course, rationally I know that my previous life with a full-time job was no more stable than I am now. Any kind of solidity in life is an illusion. At any moment, I could lose all the things that make me feel secure, including my life.
I find this comforting.
Charles Darwin said it’s not the strongest or the most intelligent that survive, but the ones most responsive to change.
Instead of desperately holding on to the things I’ve been taught I need for safely, I can loosen my grip and not worry so much about what might happen if I lose them. Instead, I can rely on my ability to change and adapt, to be flexible and move with whatever occurs.
Life will be long – barring any deadly incidents – so I can relax a bit. I don’t have to rush to reach important financial milestones as quickly as previous generations have. And perhaps my generation will redefine those milestones.